UN & IR LAW–Why Did Trygve Lie Resign?

Why did Trygve Lie resign abruptly in 1952?  This question was posed by one of my students yesterday during class discussions.  Here is my detailed response.

Ambassador Trygve Lie was born July 16, 1896, in Oslo, Norway.  He became the secretary-general of the United Nations (1946-53) largely because his candidacy was not odious both to the United States and the Soviet Union.

Lie was initially was selected to become the President of the UN General Assembly, largely a ceremonial position, but he lost to Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium. Sec-Gen Lie rose to fame in Norway after he became a leading member of the Norwegian Labor Party (Arbeiderpartiet), which he joined at the very early age of 16.  He emerged through the party ranks to become the Minister of Justice, Trade, and finally Minister of Foreign Affairs (1941-46), which was basically Norway’s government-in-exile operating out of London during World War II. .

Many factors began to work against Lie during his first five-year term in office.  During the creation of Israel he was perceived by rest of the world as too pro-American, while the Americans thought he was not sufficiently pro-American.  He also managed to offend the Middle Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union with his decision to support the UN international partition plan for Palestine. .

Lie’s real undoing began with the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950) during which time he positively supported the American viewpoint and declared the North Koreans as aggressors and asked them to stop the violence.  When Lie openly sided with the American position, which enormously angered the Communist Soviet Union.  Moreover, Lie allowed the FBI to set-up an office within the United Nations to fingerprint and question the loyalties of the UN Staff with the intent of allegedly ferreting out a spy within the UN who were leaking sensitive information to the USSR.  However, importantly, it seems that the FBI involvement during the peak of the McCarthy Era was primarily aimed at identifying communist sympathizers within the United Nations.  This action, however, only reinforced Soviet beliefs that the US was manipulating the Secretary General’s Office. .

Lie’s strong criticism of North Korea angered both USSR and China.  Hence, they decided not to support his re-election to a second term as the Sec-Gen of the United Nations. When it became very clear that the USSR was going to veto his nomination for the second-term, the United States got around the veto threat by moving his nomination directly to the UNGA, which approved a three-year extension by a vote of 46-5 in the General Assembly on Nov. 1, 1950.  Earlier it was possible to evade veto threat in the UNSC by going directly to the UNGA, but subsequent amendments to the UN Charter don’t allow such institutional trickery.  This move, however, effectively made Sec-Gen Lie persona non-grata in the eyes of the Soviet Union, which ceased to recognize him as the UN Secretary-General and did not consult with him or offer him the cordiality and formal diplomatic respect.  He was disinvited from official functions of the Soviet Bloc countries and they completely isolated him from various diplomatic occassions.  Simultaneously, he was attacked by various members of the U.S. Senate as a communist sympathizer led by the rabid anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy.  Sec-Gen Lie’s position within the UN became extremely untenable.  As a consequence, Sec-Gen Lie tendered his resignation on Nov. 10, 1952 ending his tumultuous tenure as the first Secretary General of the United Nations.

  After his resignation from the UN, he went to become the Governor of Oslo and held several prominent ministerial portfolios in Norway. One the best achievements of Trygve Sec-Gen Lie was the establishment of the UN headquarters in Turtle Bay on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, overlooking the East River.  Until the construction of the new UN headquarters in 1950, the United Nations met at various locations, even in the gym of Hunter College, CUNY. Sec-Gen Lie was also the Chairman of the Commission that drafted the United Nations Charter-the foundational document that serves as the Constitution of the United Nations.    

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